"Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process."
-- Mitt Romney in response to an ABC News report to the contrary
And so, a stumble.
The other day ABC News rushed out a story that startled. Said ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, "knowledgeable Republican sources tell me that Rubio is not being vetted by Mitt Romney's vice presidential search team. He has not been asked to complete any questionnaires or been asked to turn over any financial documents typically required of potential vice presidential candidates."
"Rubio," of course, is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a favorite of the GOP's conservative base. Two recent polls at conservative gatherings in Chicago and Las Vegas vaulted the Floridian to first place in the veep sweepstakes. He is a rising political star, and the news that a potential candidate so universally favored was not even being vetted rippled through the political universe with the force of a small earthquake.
Mr. Karl of ABC is no slouch as a political reporter, and doubtless he did have it straight from "knowledgeable Republican sources" that "Rubio is not being vetted by Mitt Romney's vice presidential search team."
The problem? These "knowledgeable Republican sources" did not include -- Mitt Romney. Who, upon hearing the story, was put in the surely annoyingly awkward position of having to spend time at a campaign rally in Michigan saying, "Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process."
Thus, a stumble for the Romney vice presidential process -- and a decidedly unnecessary one.
By Tuesday night Mr. Romney, along with wife Ann, was on Sean Hannity's TV show to explain:
I get a kick out of some of the speculation that goes on uh… and uh… I'm not going to comment on the process of course… But I can tell you this. Only Beth Myers and I know who's being vetted.
Beth Myers is a longtime Romney aide who is in charge of the candidate's vice-presidential selection process.
A process which, as this incident with the ABC story indicates, isn't working well.
What is Romney communicating to his fellow countrymen when he says, "I'm not going to comment on the process of course…But I can tell you this. Only Beth Myers and I know who's being vetted"?
Surely unintentionally the Governor is communicating that he has a thing for the game of secret squirrel, the childhood taunt of "I know something you don't know."
Is it a good idea that only Romney and Ms. Myers know Romney's innermost thoughts on those being vetted as his potential vice president? It's not just good, it's excellent and necessary.
What's bad is if the necessity for confidentiality prohibits Romney and his team from communicating a variety of extremely important ideas and images to the American people as he goes about the process of picking his vice president.
Not for nothing was Ronald Reagan nicknamed "The Great Communicator." While in retrospect communicating a message has always been a part of a president's job from the moment George Washington first took the oath of office, in the age of television, radio, and the Internet the job of being the Communicator-in-Chief has expanded by leaps and bounds.
Listen to Ronald Reagan on the subject of communicating as he discussed his 8 years in office during his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989:
And in all of that time I won a nickname, "The Great Communicator." But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
What Team Romney is missing here is an enormous opportunity to re-introduce Governor Romney to America as its potential next president. To communicate -- to showcase -- Mitt Romney's abilities as an executive, a man who loves to collect data and act on the conclusions he draws. A man who knows how to lead his party -- and his country. Perhaps most importantly, what's being missed is a chance for Americans to like Mitt Romney, to develop a comfort zone with the man who is asking to be their president -- the man who is as of a few weeks ago The Alternative to President Obama.
How to do this?
Remember Jimmy Carter.
Say what? Jimmy Carter?????
No, not President Jimmy Carter -- the hapless chief executive who bumbled his way through four years in the White House and set the stage for Ronald Reagan. Not that guy.
No, we're talking here about the 1976 candidate Jimmy Carter -- the dazzling candidate with the Why Not the Best mantra of openness and candor that wowed so many millions of Americans into first nominating Carter for president over a virtual posse of better known party rivals and then electing him over an incumbent President Gerald Ford. The Jimmy Carter who, nomination in hand that summer of 1976 but not yet formally nominated, understood that the vice-presidential selection process itself was an extraordinary opportunity to give Americans their first view of him as a presidential decision maker.
That Jimmy Carter was a communications star, his vice presidential selection process a model not just of thorough vetting focusing on the usual financial, personal, and political questions that Team Romney is surely doing as well. What made Carter's selection process such a communications success was its open presentation to the public.
By late June of 1976 Jimmy Carter was exactly where Mitt Romney is now -- the unchallenged soon-to-be nominee of his party. Like Romney, Carter too was a one term ex-governor, which is to say he was a private citizen with none of the panoply of office that is available to a sitting president, governor or senator. While he had won the nomination, Americans still knew little about the ex-Georgia governor. Campaigns inevitably turn into an impersonal televised blur, the candidate daily before a microphone or debate podium in an endless string of speeches, debates, handshaking, and baby kissing.
What Carter's people realized by the end of June was that it was time to communicate to the American people just who Jimmy Carter really was. Like Romney, Carter was going to be facing an incumbent president -- Gerald Ford -- in the fall. Americans liked Gerald Ford. Carter would have to become more -- much more -- than the increasingly familiar face of a thousand campaign appearances. What they had to do was accomplish what every successful presidential candidate accomplishes: communicate the idea and image of the candidate as a serious potential president.
Which in turn meant spending the summer of 1976 introducing Jimmy Carter the man -- the person. The ex-governor with the business and military background, the homespun Man from Plains, a tiny one-street town in rural Georgia.
The vice-presidential selection process was the perfect vehicle to communicate -- to showcase -- Carter's executive skills, his political skills, his personal background. In the wake of the scandals and secrecy associated with the Nixon presidency -- in which Ford had served as vice president -- Carter would effectively communicate what Reagan later spoke of in that 1989 farewell speech as:
….great things… [that] came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries…. the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense."
Like Romney or any sensible presidential nominee in waiting, Carter kept his innermost thoughts on the men he was considering for vice president to himself and the Beth Myerses of the Carter inner circle.
But unlike Romney, Carter realized that there was a seemingly contradictory goal that had to be achieved. While maintaining secrecy, Carter had to bring the American people in on his vice-presidential deliberations. In the summer of 1976, the secrecy of the Nixon-era cast a long shadow. Carter had won his nomination by pledging a new era of openness and transparency. His vice-presidential selection process had to become the most open in American history.
Jimmy Carter used that process to communicate transparency and a great "rediscovery" (to use Reagan's words) of American values and common sense.
How did he accomplish this? Jimmy Carter became a 1976 political version of Simon Cowell, hosting his own political version of what would decades later become famous as the reality show called American Idol. The only difference was that instead of potential superstar singers these were potential American vice presidents.
One by one by one, those who emerged as finalists on Carter's list as prospective vice presidents were flown to Plains, Georgia, for this political reality show. The press was there, the television cameras acquainting Americans not only with the potential vice president but with Carter himself. Beginning in June of that year Americans became pleasantly accustomed to learning about the Jimmy Carter of small town America.
The prospective vice presidential nominee -- always a man of prominence -- would land at the tiny Plains airport. There the public watched as famous senators Edmund Muskie, John Glenn, and Walter Mondale arrived one-by-one for face time with the soon-to-be nominee. Americans not only were charmed by Carter's modest Plains home, where each man would come out and talk to the press with their gracious host at his side after a lengthy meeting. Particularly striking was the openness of it all -- with Carter following the press conference by giving some of the interviewees of the moment -- and the press -- a folksy walkthrough of tiny Plains and the charms of small town America. Muskie, charmingly, got his loafer stuck in a rail of the local railroad tracks as they walked, leaning on the much shorter Carter as he hopped on one foot and retrieved his shoe.
There were cynics, of course. Republicans grumbled that Carter was milking the selection process for publicity. Doubtless true.
But using the selection process as a way to introduce Carter to the American public as a potential president was a decided hit. Not all the candidates came to Plains. The four others on Carter's list -- Senators Frank Church of Idaho, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, and Henry Jackson of Washington, along with New Jersey Congressman Peter Rodino -- met with Carter when the candidate arrived in New York for the party convention. By the time Carter took to the podium of a New York hotel to announce Minnesota Senator Walter F. Mondale as his choice -- the selection process was seen as a political ten-strike for Carter.
The contrast with Romney is thus far stark.
So far, to the extent the American public knows anything about a potential Romney vice president it is that Romney has some staff person in charge (Ms. Myers) and, according to ABC, isn't vetting the one guy conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated so much enthusiasm for -- Senator Rubio.
Oops… that's wrong. Actually he is vetting Rubio and had to say so to correct a false news report. But that's all Americans know.
Now is exactly the moment Americans should be getting to know not only the policy details and decision-making process of a prospective President Romney -- but the personal side as well. And something about the people he is considering as a potential vice president as well.
As gleaned thus far, Romney is the rich guy from that mean old Bain Company, he's got several houses, and his wife is into all the horse business that only the rich have time for. In communication terms -- everything wrong is being communicated.
Let's start with the obvious.
The very first president was a rich guy. What Americans learned in the day -- and revere today -- is that George Washington had a lovely home called Mt. Vernon. In fact, Washington, who began so many of the nation's presidential traditions (it was he who spurned the idea of calling the chief executive "Your Excellency" or "Your Highness" in favor of the plain "Mr. President") began with Mt. Vernon an American affection for the private homes of presidents. As the centuries passed, from Jefferson's Monticello to Jackson's Hermitage and on through to TR's Sagamore Hill, FDR's Hyde Park, Ike's Gettysburg farm, JFK's Hyannis Port, Reagan's ranch (and LBJ's and George W.'s ranches) -- the private residences of presidents have been used to communicate the personal nature of the president in question. For Lincoln, his stately Springfield, Illinois home was not only used to signify his acceptance of the role as leader of the Republican Party when prominent Republicans dutifully trekked to Springfield to formally notify Lincoln of his nomination. From that moment forward until his departure for Washington as President-elect, Lincoln's Springfield home became, in the words of the National Park Service, "the center of [the nation's] attention."
So too with Jimmy Carter. In the summer of 1976 tiny Plains, Georgia, became the place to be if you were a Democrat -- with the American public taking it all in on television. Plains became the set of a political reality show playing out every night on the nightly news, telling the story of Jimmy Carter and his David versus Goliath challenge to win the presidency. There was Carter with Muskie. With Glenn. With Mondale. There he was getting a national security briefing. There were important economists paying a call. And when there were no meetings, the potential new president was seen on TV playing softball, hosting cat fish fries, draining a pond -- communicating the simple American values that many in the day thought had been lost in the Nixon era. Who could forget that rascally brother Billy and Jimmy's motorcycle riding sister?
So where does Mitt Romney hang out? Is it that farm in the incidentally-key-state of New Hampshire?
Great. Then the 2012 political reality show should spend some time there. As the summer moves along, let the American people see Mitt Romney-in-command. Burn the image of Mitt at rest in New Hampshire into every televised image available. Show him on a tractor. Show him being Mitt. Make that farm for Romney what Lincoln's Springfield house became, what Plains became -- the center of national attention.
Most importantly, show Romney with those prospective vice presidents. Stop with the secret squirrel business. If the Romney list is, say, Rubio, Ryan, Christie, Portman, Pawlenty and whomever else…. bring them to that New Hampshire farm for one-on-one's with Mitt. When the meeting is done, walk out to the assembled press and chat -- give America a feel for what the next four years might look like. Get Americans accustomed to the idea of the Romney version of Plains or Hyde Park. In other words -- the next Summer White House.
Communicate. Don't make a dog-and-pony show of it, cynically including people who Romney wouldn't choose but are put on a list to please some pol or interest group. Let the American people in on the process. Let them know that Romney or Beth Myers are talking to Republican leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, and others. Tell them that all the finances and other details are being examined. See to it that Romney's pollsters are quietly doing match-ups that test the strengths and weaknesses of a Romney-Rubio or Romney-Ryan or Romney-Pawlenty ticket. Don't discuss the results -- just include the American people on the journey. And among other things, there will be no more awkward stories that X isn't being vetted when he or she is -- or vice versa. Because Mitt Romney will have plainly said -- here's my list. Then… show up in Tampa and announce the winner.
Communicate leadership. Command.
In a very real sense, what Mitt Romney has the chance to do is tap into the zeitgeist that lies behind the popularity of American Idol -- just as Jimmy Carter did decades ago before the popular show even existed.
Mitt Romney as a political Simon Cowell. With Marco Rubio and the rest trying out for the newest political version of American Idol. Marco Rubio -- or whomever -- as a vice-presidential Susan Boyle. As Susan Boyle appeared in this now-famous episode of the British version of American Idol called Britain's Got Talent, hopefully Romney's choice will leave Americans standing and cheering at the recognition of sheer talent and ability.
But the real reality show?
The real contest for the political version of American Idol is the one for which Mitt Romney has spent years auditioning. And it's time to use the vice-presidential selection process once again. This time to show the American people that Mitt Romney is ready for his close-ups.
To be the next President of the United States.